Loving the birds, spreading the word (Part 1: The Royal Albatross)

22 November 2019

The bus picks us up at our hotel on the outskirts of Dunedin. It’s pretty much full, maybe around 20 people, all intent on spending the afternoon and early evening birdwatching on the Otago Peninsula. Our first stop will be Taiaroa Head, site of a breeding colony of albatross and home to the Royal Albatross Centre.

Driving out along the peninsula we pass several wetland birding hotspots. It appears we’re the only people on this trip who’ve ever been birdwatching before, but the others are lapping it up.

Pied Stilt

It’s as if they’re seeing and thinking about birds for the first time. They crane their necks for a better view, and leap from their seats to take photos on their cell phones.

Mrs P and I wish we could stop for a while. Being confined to a slow moving bus and watching the action through the window is frustrating; maybe we should have driven ourselves out here instead? On the other hand it’s good to see other people – ordinary tourists, just out for an afternoon excursion – enjoying an activity that has meant the world to us for more than 30 years.

Royal Spoonbill

But they don’t all get it. The guide points out a Paradise Shelduck, a good looking bird that elicits murmurs of appreciation from several passengers. And then, out of the blue, one of them pipes up brightly “Do they taste good?”

Do they taste good? For god’s sake, I think to myself, we’ve come here to look at the birds, not to fantasise about eating them. What’s the matter with you woman, who the hell do you think you are, Gordon bloody Ramsey? But I say nothing of the sort, I’m English after all, we’re far too polite to point out to idiots the truth of their idiocy, so I just look away, seething silently.

But I needn’t worry, the other passengers have been enjoying the show, and can see that eating one of the cast would be out of order. The atmosphere is suddenly frosty and pretty soon the wretched woman apologises sheepishly, saying she wasn’t thinking. Too bloody right she wasn’t.

*

The Royal Albatross Centre is an impressive building, befitting of New Zealand’s first private charitable conservation trust. The Otago Peninsula Trust was established in 1967 for the purpose of protecting and enhancing peninsula flora and fauna. The albatross were then, and remain now, the stars of the show.

Northern Royal Albatross

Albatross mostly breed on small, remote islands. Taiaora Head is the world’s only mainland breeding colony of Royal Albatross. Relatively speaking they are newcomers here, the first egg having been laid in around 1920.

However there was so much predation and human interference that it was not until 1938 that the first chick fledged. Efforts to protect them increased thereafter, and in 1951 a full-time field officer was appointed. Work at the colony has continued ever since, with the result that there are about 250 albatross on the Head.

Mum and dad renewing their bond; incubation duty is about to be handed over

On arrival we are ushered into an auditorium to see a film presentation on the Royal Albatross, which explains the lifecycle of these magnificent birds and outlines the threats they face. We learn that the adult birds have a wing span of 3 metres (nearly 10 feet) and weigh between 8 and 9 kilograms (18 to 20 lbs). Even more stunning, at seven months old a chick weighs in at between 10 and 12 kilograms (22 to 26 lbs) – it seems amazing they can ever take off.

Prospective albatross parents arrive at Taiaora Head in September to re-establish their pair bonds. Nests are built and eggs laid in November. Incubation lasts 11 weeks, with both parents sharing the duties. Eggs hatch in late January or February, with chicks taking around three days to force their way out of their shells.

The Royal Albatross’ wingspan and a (wo)man’s outstretched arms compared

Rearing the chicks takes several months, with parents sharing the feeding duties. The birds fledge in September, and will be absent between four and six years before hopefully returning to raise youngsters of their own. The parents take a well-deserved year off before coming back here to go through the whole process again.

Threats to breeding birds on Taiaora Head include introduced mammalian predators (rats, ferrets, stoats and feral cats), climatic extremes, fire and human disturbance. To limit the latter, the only public access is via small guided tours – like the one we are on – to an observatory at one section of the reserve.

Up close and personal with Red-billed Gulls. Note the chick, to the left of the uppermost adult gull

So, having been given the lowdown on what we’re about to see, we are led from the Visitor Centre in a group, up a steep slope towards the observatory. On the way we pass clusters of Red-billed Gulls, some just metres from the path. There are reckoned to be around 4,000 at Taiaora Head, and they seem unconcerned by the constant stream of visitors walking to and from the observatory. Mrs P and I are pleased to see them, and also delighted that so many people are plainly enjoying getting close to nature.

The observatory is a large, purpose-built bird hide, with room for perhaps 20 visitors at a time. The windows don’t open, which is frustrating from a photography point of view but absolutely right and proper: this place is all about the birds, and their welfare – including the need to be free from unnecessary human disturbance – is paramount.

Inside the observatory

The view overlooks a sloping, grass-covered headland, and beyond it the sea. There are albatross dotted here and there in the grass, some alone and others in pairs, while more wheel effortlessly above in the brisk wind. We settle down to watch the action, while our guide tells us more about what we are seeing.

Bill rubbing, an important form of socialisation

She reminds us that it is late November, so the eggs have been laid and incubation is underway. There’s a constant coming and going; albatross circle around for a while, searching for a suitable spot, then crash land in an inelegant tangle of legs and wings. Meanwhile, others take off and head out to sea.

Both birds take turns at incubating the egg, and when an adult returns to its duties after time away to feed and stretch its wings, there is a period of socialisation: they dance around one another, moving synchronously and tenderly rubbing their bills together. And then it’s time for the changing of the guard: the newly arrived adult takes over incubation, while its mate takes some time out.

Coming in to land … or maybe heading out for lunch?

It’s a joy to watch the Royal Albatross going about their business, apparently unaware of our presence. It’s also great that so many people come here to enjoy them. Man – directly or indirectly – is the greatest threat to the survival of these majestic birds, but at the same time the only hope for their salvation. If people come here and pay for the pleasure, and if the good folk of the Otago Peninsula Trust spend that money wisely, then maybe – hopefully – they have a chance.

  • Watch live action from the albatross colony. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has set up a webcam to enable us to view the action live, 24 hours a day. Click here for the link.

Q: So, when is a castle not a castle? A: When it’s Larnach Castle

22 November 2019

We have some free time before this afternoon’s birding tour on the Otago Peninsula, so we head out to Larnach Castle to see what all the fuss is about. It grandly styles itself “New Zealand’s only castle,” which is a marketing strapline that’s both agreeably catchy and totally wrong. But that’s the nature of marketing, isn’t it?

Larnach Castle, near Dunedin, dominated by an Australian-style wrap-around iron lacework verandah

When I was a kid growing up in England castles were understood to be very old, grim and grey, bristling with battlements for defence, and towers for locking up captured enemy warriors and random passing princesses. And there’d be a moat and a portcullis, and one of those little holes through which you could pour hot oil and other nasties on to the heads of your adversaries.

On the verandah

Larnach Castle isn’t a bit like that. In the manner of Balmoral Castle in Scotland, where our fair Queen hangs her hat every summer, it’s a mansion built for boasting rather than battles.

Larnach Castle was conceived and constructed in the second half of the 19th century, not by a king or a prince or a nobleman, but by a get-rich-quick Australian banker. William Larnach arrived in New Zealand in 1867 to take up an appointment as the manager of the Bank of Otago. He did well for himself, earning so much through land speculation, farming investments, and a timber business that in 1871 he was able to start on his great building project, the mansion that would ultimately become Larnach Castle.

The dining room

The original plans for the building came from England, and were based on the Gothic Revival style of architecture. However they were substantially altered by Dunedin architect R. A. Lawson, who was born in Scotland but worked in Melbourne before crossing the Tasman Sea to New Zealand.

Lawson wrapped the core of the building in substantial but delicate iron lace work verandahs, in accordance with the Australian style. In so doing he created a new world version of old world architecture, a mansion that is either an icon or a bit of an oddball, depending on your taste.

William Larnach spared no expense in building his Castle. Materials were brought to the site from around the world. There was slate from Wales, iron, ceramics and twenty tons of glass from France, mosaics from Belgium, marble from Italy, bricks from Marseille, Huon Pine and Tasmanian Blackwood from Australia, Douglas Fir from North America and many more European and tropical woods.

The emblem and motto of clan Sutherland, from which William Larnach claimed descent

Nor could locals be trusted to deliver Larnach’s vision: they just didn’t have the skills, so he imported the necessary craftsmen including woodcarvers from England, and stonemasons from England and Scotland. The Castle’s fine plasterwork was executed by two Italians. No expense was spared.

Larnach also took the opportunity to draw attention to his Scottish ancestry. He claimed descent from clan Sutherland, which boasts a wildcat on its crest and the motto “Sans Peur” (without fear). A cat and the motto are shown on stained glass above some internal windows, although the moggie is a pale imitation of a fearless wildcat and more like a cuddly pussy cat.

Said to be the only Georgian-style hanging staircase in the Southern Hemisphere

It’s easy to be cynical (who? me?) about Larnach’s obvious attempt to show off his great wealth, but although the two stone lions guarding the steps up to the grand entrance are more than a little pretentious, I confess I like Larnach Castle a lot. And the fact that it’s here for me to enjoy is thanks to its current owners, the Barker family, who rescued it in the second half of the last century. Here’s what the visitor guide tells us about its turbulent history:

[William] Larnach lived in the Castle with three successive wives until 1898, when he took his own life in New Zealand’s House of Parliament. Larnach’s children sold the property which changed hands several times and was twice abandoned. The grounds were engulfed by second growth when we discovered Larnach Castle and the surrounding 14 hectares of wilderness in 1967. In a leap of faith we purchased this historic property, and its restoration and development became a life’s work for our family.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

View back to the Castle from the garden

Another leaflet hints at how much effort has gone into the restoration:

… when we bought the Castle in 1967 it was empty of furniture, and in a very sad state of repair, with many leaks in the roof. We would like to record our sincere thanks to all those people who have loaned or sold us original pieces.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Your guide to Larnach Castle” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

As we work our way through the building, trying hard to avoid the selfie-obsessed Chinese tour group, it’s apparent that the Castle is smaller on the inside than it appears from outside, like the Tardis in reverse. This is a good thing, making the place feel less cavernous and more homely than we’d expected. I can easily imagine sitting on the verandah, sipping cocktails and watching the sun go down over the glorious garden. By no stretch of the imagination is this place a castle, but it surely is a triumph.

View from the battlements out to sea along the Otago Peninsula; the Harbour is t the left

We make our way up the narrow winding stone staircase to the fake battlements. Here we are 320 metres – around 1,000 feet – above the sea. The panoramic view down to Otago Harbour and along the Otago Peninsula is spectacular. It’s also a good place from which to appreciate the Castle gardens.

Colourful plantings

The visitor leaflet leaves us in no doubt as to the credentials of the gardens when it says:

A South Seas’ Garden between harbour and ocean, at 300 metres, Larnach Castle Garden feels close to the sky. Enclosures and spaces flow, one into another, from open colourful plantings to areas shaded and green, each with an ambience, an idea, and all leading on to the beautiful views.

SOURCE: Leaflet “Larnach Castle, Dunedin, New Zealand” received on the day of our visit, 22 November 2019

Flowery prose indeed. Sounds like hype, but to be fair the gardens really are rather good. While the Castle and its outbuildings were largely William Larnach’s creation, the gardens are mostly down to the Barkers.

An improvement in the weather (at last!) shows the gardens at their best

Having said that, a glass cupola on the lawn outside the front of the Castle dates from between 1927-39, when the property was owned by a Mr and Mrs Purdie.

Internal view of the cupola roof

There’s a bit of an Alice in Wonderland theme going on in parts of the garden, also dating from the Purdies’ time in the 1930s. The Purdies were fans of the English novelist Lewis Carroll and his young heroine, and the Barkers have maintained the tradition.

In November 2007 the Mayor of Dunedin unveiled a bronze sculpture of Alice to commemorate the 40 years of the Barker family’s guardianship of the Castle. The sculpture is by Christchurch sculptor Stephen Gleeson, and depicts the moment when Alice is about to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts, using a flamingo as a mallet and a curled up hedgehog for the ball. And they say the English are animal lovers…

Alice in Wonderland, about to be unspeakably cruel to a flamingo and a hedgehog

The garden is a fine, ongoing piece of work, and although we can see the city of Dunedin just beyond the harbour, the Castle and its gardens belong to a different world. I could happily stay longer here but we have to dash as we’re hoping to spend the afternoon in the company of penguins, and maybe the odd albatross or two.

From the garden, a view across Otago Harbour towards Dunedin

Larnach Castle is a quirky, unexpected find, but well worth a visit … as long as you’re not expecting to see a REAL castle, that is!


   

Down Dunedin way: A stunning station and a gorgeous gorge

21 November 2019

I’ve already driven several thousand kilometres since arriving in New Zealand, and although the car is comfortable and the traffic mostly light there are days when I feel the need for time off from behind the wheel. So today, having battled hard to find somewhere to park in central Dunedin, it’s time to let the train take the strain while we spend the afternoon on the Taieri Gorge Scenic Railway.

Dunedin station, built in the first decade of the 20th century

But before we set off there’s time to explore Dunedin station. And what a stunner it is. Built in the first decade of the 20th century, it’s said to be the most photographed building in New Zealand. Well, I’m not sure about that – how the hell would you prove it? – but it’s definitely worth a snap or two.

The booking hall, a celebration of the tiler’s craft

Wikipedia describes the style as “eclectic revived Flemish renaissance,” and who am I to argue? Externally, the distinctive light and dark patterning is common to many of the grander buildings of Dunedin. Internally, although no longer used for its original purpose the booking hall is a celebration of the tiler’s craft, including a mosaic floor of almost 750,000 Minton tiles.

File:Dunedin Railway Station Foyer.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: User Grutness on en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

Once, when Dunedin was one of New Zealand’s busiest stations handling over 100 trains a day, the booking hall would have bustled with the coming and goings of passengers. Today it’s just tourists like us who come, admiring the architecture before joining a train excursion to explore the countryside beyond Dunedin.

The Taieri Gorge Railway was built in the late 19th century, after the goldrush. The get-rich-quick days of prospecting were over, and new, longer term strategies were required to generate wealth. One of the country’s greatest assets was the agricultural and pastoral potential of the land. To make use of it the interior of the country had to be opened up, but in some areas road transport was impossibly difficult. Railways seemed to offer the way ahead.

Not that it was easy to drive a railway through this landscape. In a country that was just a few decades old it was a major feat of engineering to build here. To enable the laying of a track through the Taieri Gorge, ten tunnels had to be hacked out of the bedrock, and 16 bridges constructed. One of those bridges, the Wingatui Viaduct, remains the second largest wrought iron structure in operation in the world.

The gorge is spectacularly scenic, and also very, very yellow, thanks to the gorse and broom that’s flowering at present. But it wasn’t always like this. Neither the gorse nor the broom is native to New Zealand, and like so many other introduced plants they’ve made themselves at home here. We’ve heard them described as noxious weeds, but although clearly not popular with everyone they’re here to stay.

It’s worth pointing out that the grass that is the staple diet of the country’s (introduced!) sheep, cattle and deer isn’t native to this country either. The fact is that New Zealand’s landscape has been changed out of all recognition by the plants and animals that Europeans introduced in the 19th century, and although from one point of view this may be a matter for regret it’s also a fact of life and isn’t going to change.

Humpty Dumpty has fallen from his wall and lies shattered on New Zealand’s ancient bedrock, and however much some well-meaning but impossibly romantic folk might wish it were otherwise, nobody can put him back together again.

Postscript: Dunedin Station. In January 2020 Ms Liz, who blogs out of Tapanui in West Otago, posted a number of photographs which show in more detail the glories of Dunedin Station. You can see her posts here and here. And earlier in January Liz posted about her own trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway, travelling further than us – all the way to the end of the line at Middlemarch. All of Liz’s posts are definitely worth a look!

A Dunedin Masterpiece: The Toitu Otago Settlers Museum

21 November 2019

We’re in Dunedin to take an afternoon train ride along the Taieri Gorge, but we have a couple of hours to kill so we pop into the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum next to the railway station.

The museum is housed, in part, in a stunning art deco building. Coming from England, where history oozes from every corner and crevice, it would be easy to fall into the trap of assuming that 20th century architecture is inferior to “proper old stuff” from earlier centuries. This, in turn, would be to condemn most New Zealand buildings as unworthy of serious consideration. The masterpiece that is the Toitu Otago Settlers Museum is proof positive that such views are seriously misguided.

The magnificent art deco exterior of the Toitu Otago Setllers Museum

The museum is

dedicated to telling the story of the people of Dunedin and the surrounding area, whose character, culture, technology, art, fashion and transport shaped New Zealand’s first great city.

SOURCE: Toitu Otago Settlers’ Museum website, retrieved 21 December 2019

Although the museum is mostly devoted to social history since the arrival of the Europeans, Maori lives are also represented. Suspended from the ceiling of one of the galleries is a Manu Tukutuku, a bird-like kite which was flown to celebrate the Maori New Year. Made from woven New Zealand flax it’s one of the Maori exhibits that catches the eye.

Manu Tukutuku

The early history of Dunedin is captured by some fine old photographs, which are strategically displayed throughout the museum. The undated image below reflects the earliest days of the city, and gives a clue to the effort needed to carve it out of the virgin bush.

Early days in Dunedin

Early Dunedin was, of course, fashioned largely from timber, and it’s no surprise therefore that the city fathers were worried about the danger of fire. A fire brigade was established in 1862, and kitted out with the latest in fire engine technology. The Pride of Dunedin was built by Shand Mason and Company of London, and brought to the other side of the world to help keep Dunedin safe.

The Pride of Dunedin fire engine, built in 1862

Dunedin’s origins lie in the wish of a group of breakaway Presbyterian Scots to create a vigorous new community, where members of the Free Church of Scotland could live out their faith and advance themselves. The first of them arrived in 1848. It’s joked that these early immigrants from Scotland were looking for somewhere cold, damp and miserable to make them feel at home, and the area they chose – which was to become Dunedin – fitted that bill perfectly.

In another acknowledgment of their Scottish heritage the early settlers wanted to call their city New Edinburgh. Soon, however, that was superseded by Dunedin, derived from Dùn Èideann, the Scots Gaelic name for Edinburgh.

The Dunedin Stationery Warehouse in the late 19th century

Dunedin grew rapidly during the central Otago goldrush, beginning in the 1860s. In the mid-1860s, and between 1878 and 1881, it was New Zealand’s largest urban area. The image above shows the Dunedin Stationery Warehouse at around this time, and reflects a local economy that was doing well.

A Dunedin tram

The development of Dunedin as a city and the wealth that it generated in due course required the creation of a public transport infrastructure, including trams.

The Automobile association of Otago’s service vehicle, built in 1924

Private car ownership began in the early 20th century, and of course with it grew also the fear of mechanical breakdown. When their members found themselves in difficulty the Automobile Association of Otago’s service vehicle – built in England in 1924 – could be called upon to help out. Notice that the yellow colour of this early vehicle reflects the branding of today’s Automobile Association (AA), both in New Zealand and the UK.

Peugeot motorcycle pictured at Waipori in 1906

As well as cars, motorcycles were an important part of the transport infrastructure. The image above shows Dunedin motor agent C. J. Fox and his Peugeot motorcycle in the Dunedin township of Waipori in 1906, while below is one of the museum’s must-see exhibits, a restored 1916 Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidson, built 1906

I could happily spend all day here at the Otago Settlers Museum, but we have a train to catch. It’s become evident over the last few weeks that New Zealand does museums well, and this one is no exception. It is, like the other museums we’ve visited on this trip, an excellent facility that deserves to be treasured by visitors and locals alike.